Quarterback situation offers Irish optimism

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Nothing was settled Saturday in the starting quarterback derby for the Irish football team.

But more than 27,000 fans left Notre Dame Stadium feeling a whole lot better about the position than they have in a while.

Smart but slow is no longer an option – or a last resort. Now it’s quick and elusive … or quick and elusive.

Numbers from the Blue-Gold Game hardly give any indication of the evaluation that will ultimately lead to a starter Aug. 30 against Rice. Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t keen on the notion of having a two-quarterback system, but he’s also in no hurry to chisel out a pecking order.

Saturday was just one more step in the process.

Working against a very bland and stud-starved defense, quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire combined to complete 30 of 45 passes for 434 yards and two touchdowns.

Of course, wearing red jerseys (being off limits for contact) makes for a measure of security that isn’t available once the pass-rushers start pouncing for real.

Still, getting the two on film was the most important benefit from Saturday. The fact that 126 points were split evenly between the offense and defense won’t carry any weight beyond the post-game bragging rights.

“We have to be better in the red zone,” Kelly said of one of his mandates for the quarterbacks.

Notre Dame’s offense ranked 77th in the country inside the 20-yard line last season, scoring 80 percent of the time.

“We certainly have to be a (more productive) offense (because) we don't have some of those prolific defensive players on the field that we've had over the last few years,” Kelly said. “We have to be more proficient offensively. We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10-7. We're going to have to put some points on board.”

In other words, buckle your seatbelts, Irish fans. That scoreboard’s going to get a workout.

“It’s no pressure, it’s an opportunity,” said Golson, who had quite a defensive safety valve to count on in 2012. “As a quarterback, I don’t want to score (just) 10 points. I want to score as much as I can.”

Saturday’s exhibition was another chance for Golson, a rising senior, and Zaire, who will be a sophomore, to strut their stuff. That strut has to come from genuine self-confidence.

“You can’t not be confident playing this position at Notre Dame,” Zaire said. “Because of my motivation to help this team win a national championship, you’ve gotta be confident. If you don’t believe in yourself first, nobody else is going to believe in you.

“I feel I established myself a little more; being the playmaker and the consistent person and quarterback I know I can be. They’re going to put the best guy out there. I feel I have to play at my top level at all times. If I play at my best level and my guys play at their best level, it will work itself out where I can be that guy.”

“I know I (have command of the offense),” Golson said. “I’m that leader of the team. I have to know what I’m doing first in order for guys to follow suit.”

“By and large, I thought (Zaire) was fairly consistent,” Kelly said. “His problem has been consistency of staying with progressions and: Are we letting anybody in at any time? Is that how we're doing this?

“The consistency was much better for him. Effort, pocket awareness was OK. We've still got a ways to go there. I'd like to see more catchable balls. Overall, structurally, his understanding of what we're doing, it's getting better. There was some progress.”

“I feel we have a legit shot to have a great team,” Zaire said, dodging the question of him having a legit shot to win the job. “I’m not ever going to say that I don’t feel confident in my abilities, or feel confident that the coaches want to put the best guy out there. I just have to keep playing well.”

Golson also wasn’t ready to stake his claim to the spot he held – and executed well – two years ago.

“I’m just trying to take care of what I have to take care of: Footwork, pocket presence,” Golson said. “That’s the big thing for me. Since I’ve gotten back this spring, that’s been important. I’m just trying to take care of myself. Everything else will take care of itself.

“Nothing is ever given to you. You have to work for everything. I’ve done that up to this point, in terms of being mature. What we have right now is a quarterback battle. That competition is going to push both of us.”

“(Golson) knew that he needed to continue to grow and develop,” Kelly said. “He knew that he needed to have good pocket awareness today and make good decisions. Both of them needed to show improvement. They were improved (Saturday). They weren't where I need them, but they were both improved.”

Of course, hold the enthusiasm. This time last year everyone was bubbly about the prospects of having Golson back for an encore.

How’d that turn out? Smart but slow became the order of the day.

Be patient. A lot can happen between now and Aug. 30.

But, the odds are a little better this time.

Notre Dame QB Everett Golson jokes around as he signals plays to backup QB Charlie Fiessinger during the Blue-Gold Spring Football Game on Saturday, April 12, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)